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Authors: Siegfried Lenz

Tags: #Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Literary

Stella

BOOK: Stella
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P
UBLISHER’S
N
OTE:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

for ulla

Contents

Cover
Title Page
Publisher’s Note
Dedication
First Page
Copyright

 

“Here sit we down in tears and grief,” sang our school choir at the beginning of the hour of remembrance. Then Principal Block went over to the podium, which was surrounded by wreaths. He walked slowly, hardly glancing at the crowded hall, and stopped in front of Stella’s photograph on its wooden easel. He straightened up, or seemed to do so, and then bowed very low.

While he stayed in that position, Stella, in front of your photo, which had a black, ribbed silk ribbon running diagonally across it, a mourning ribbon in your memory, while he stood there bowing, I looked at your face. It wore the thoughtful smile so familiar to the oldest students—that was us—from your English classes. I looked at the short black hair I’d caressed, the bright eyes I’d kissed on the beach of Bird Island. I couldn’t help thinking of that, and I remembered how you encouraged me to guess your age. Principal Block spoke to your photograph, glancing down
at it, he called you our beloved and highly esteemed Stella Petersen, he went on to say that you had been on the Lessing High School teaching staff for five years, that you were greatly valued by your colleagues and popular with the students. Principal Block didn’t forget to mention your commendable work on the School Textbooks Committee, and finally he reminded us that yours had always been a cheerful nature: “Students who went on her school outings always spoke with enthusiasm, long after the event, of her good ideas, the mood she inspired among all the young people, the sense of community they felt in studying at Lessing High School. That was what she created, a spirit of community.”

A warning sound of shushing came from the front row by the windows where the little ones stood, the third-grade kids who never stopped talking. They were pushing and shoving, they had something they wanted to show each other, their class teacher was trying to make them be quiet. You looked lovely in the photograph. I knew that green sweater, and the silk scarf with the pattern of anchors; you were wearing the sweater back then on the beach of Bird Island where the stormy wind drove us ashore.

After the principal, one of the students was also to speak. They’d asked me first, probably because I was our class president, but I said no. I knew I wouldn’t be able to cope with it, not after all that happened. Since I had turned the offer down, Georg Bisanz was going to be the student speaker, and indeed he himself had asked to say a few words in memory of Ms. Petersen. Georg had always been her favorite student, and took glowing reports home. I wonder what you would have thought, Stella, if you’d heard his account of our class outing: the time we went to that North Frisian island where the old lighthouse keeper told us about his work, and we waded in the shallows and got mud all over our legs. He mentioned the mud on your legs too, and how you held your skirt up, and felt more flatfish with your bare feet than anyone else. Georg went on to talk about that evening at the Ferry House. When he said how good the fried flounders were, he spoke for all of us, and I knew just how he felt when he enthusiastically recalled the way the evening ended with sea shanties.

We all sang along that evening, we knew “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Off Madagascar As We Lay,” and all the other sea songs. I drank two
beers, and to my surprise Stella was drinking beer as well. Sometimes I felt that you were one of us, another student; you enjoyed the same things we enjoyed, you were amused when someone put hats on the stuffed seabirds perched everywhere—paper hats, he folded them very cleverly. “And how pleased we were, my dear colleagues,” said the principal to the staff, “when two students won scholarships to Oxford.” To make the significance of his meaning crystal clear, he nodded to Stella’s picture and repeated quietly, “Scholarships to Oxford.” A sudden sob was heard, as if that statement could be understood differently. The man sobbing with his hand over his mouth was Mr. Kugler, our art teacher. We’d often seen him and Stella walking the same way home together. Now and then she used to take his arm, and he was so much taller than Stella that it sometimes looked as if he were dragging her along. Several of the younger kids nudged each other and pointed at the weeping teacher. Two third graders only just managed to suppress a giggle.

———

Mr. Kugler hadn’t been among the spectators when we were working on the breakwater. He’d been away
sailing on a yacht in the Danish islands. He was a tall, alarmingly thin man, and I’d certainly have noticed him among the onlookers that day. Most of them were summer visitors.

They came over to the beach from the Seaview Hotel, many of them in swimsuits, climbed up on the pier, and made their way all along it as it jutted out to sea, right to the end, where they looked for a place to sit near the flashing light or on one of the mighty stone bastions. Our battered black barge, fitted for carrying stones, was already lying just off the Hirtshafen entrance to the bay, secured by two anchors and loaded up to deck level with muddy, seaweed-covered rocks. We had dredged them up to widen and reinforce the breakwater and repair the pier, which had been damaged when winter storms knocked a number of stones out of its structure. A moderate nor’easterly wind had promised a good spell of fine summer weather.

At a sign from my father, his man Frederik swung out the derrick boom, lowered the grab bucket, positioned the metal jaws above one rock so that it was tightly gripped, and when the winch began turning and the colossal boulder rose jerkily from the hold, swaying gently back and forth over the side of the
deck, the spectators stared spellbound. One of them raised his camera. My father gave another signal, the hinged jaws of the grab bucket opened, let the massive rock drop, and the water splashed up where it hit the surface, making waves boil and bubble in turbulence that took some time to die down.

I put on the diving mask and slipped over the side of the barge and into the water, to check the position of the rocks, but I had to wait until the flurry of mud and sand had rolled away and settled in the light current. Only then could I see that the big rock we had just sunk was well placed. It lay across other stones, leaving gaps and cracks between them, in line with our calculations, allowing water to drain away when the current washed around the breakwater. When my father cast me an inquiring glance I was able to reassure him. Everything was lying just as it should to build the breakwater back up. I climbed on board, and Frederik offered me his pack of cigarettes and gave me a light.

Before he brought the grab bucket down over the next rock, he pointed to our audience. “Hey, Christian, see that girl in the green swimsuit, the one with the beach bag? I reckon she knows you.” I recognized her at once, her hairstyle and her broad-cheeked face
immediately told me who she was, Stella Petersen, my English teacher at Lessing High School. “Do you know her?” asked Frederik.

“Yes, she’s my English teacher,” I said.

“What, her?” Frederik asked incredulously. “Looks more like a schoolgirl herself.”

“Don’t let that fool you,” I said. “She has to be some years older than us.”

I’d recognized you at once, Stella, and I thought of our last conversation before the summer vacation, your warning and your encouragement. “Christian, if you want to make the grade you really ought to work a bit harder. Read
Huckleberry Finn
, read
Animal Farm
. We’ll be looking at those books again after the summer break.”

Frederik wanted to know how my teacher and I got on, and I said, “Well, could be better.”

She was watching Frederik with interest as he brought his grab bucket down over a huge black colossus, raised it in the air, and let it hover for a moment over the now almost empty cargo space in the hold. But he couldn’t prevent the rock from slipping out of those jaws and slamming down on the steel-lined platform of the barge so hard that the whole boat shook.
She called to us, she waved and gestured, indicating that she’d like to come aboard, and I pushed out the narrow gangplank, thrust it over the side, and found a flat stone at the foot of the pier where it could rest securely. Confidently, without a moment’s hesitation, she came over to us, balancing on the balls of her feet a couple of times, or trying to, and then I reached out my hand and helped her on board. My father didn’t seem too pleased to have this stranger visiting us. He moved slowly toward her, looking at me inquiringly, expectantly, and when I introduced her to him—“This is my English teacher, Ms. Petersen”—he said, “Well, there’s not much to see here.” But then he shook hands with her and asked, smiling, “I hope Christian isn’t giving you too much trouble?”

Before she replied, she looked searchingly at me, as if not quite sure of her verdict yet. Then she said, in an almost indifferent tone, “Christian’s doing fine.”

My father just nodded; he hadn’t expected any other answer. With his usual curiosity he immediately asked whether she had come for the beach party. The Hirtshafen beach party attracted a lot of people, he added, but Stella shook her head. She had friends who were sailing nearby in their yacht, she said, and
they were going to pick her up in Hirtshafen in the next day or so.

“Yes, these are good sailing waters,” said my father. “Yachtsmen think highly of them.”

The first vessel to pass the breakwater we’d been reinforcing that day was a small fishing cutter on her way home. She moved safely toward the harbor mouth, the fisherman throttled back his engine and came in beside us, and when my father asked what his catch was like he pointed to the flat boxes of cod and mackerel. A poor catch, just enough to pay for his diesel, not enough plaice, not enough eels, and off Bird Island a torpedo had become entangled in his net, he told us, a blank torpedo, the fishery patrol vessel had taken it on board. He looked at our cargo of rocks, then at his catch, and said laughing, “You’re on to a good thing, Wilhelm, you just take what you need out of the water. Rocks stay put, you can always rely on rocks.”

My father asked for some fish, saying he’d pay later, and added, turning to Stella, “No money changes hands in an open boat on the water, that’s our custom.” After the fisherman had cast off again, my father told Frederik to hand out mugs and pour us some tea. Stella accepted, but declined the shot of rum that Frederik was about
to add. Frederik helped himself so generously that my father felt it necessary to give him a warning.

Frederik raised the last rock of our cargo very slowly, swung the derrick boom out until the huge stone was moving just above the surface of the water, and lowered it where we were shoring up the breakwater. He let it down, he didn’t allow the stone to drop but gently lowered it, and nodded, satisfied, when the water rose and broke above the big boulder.

You marveled at the size of those mighty rocks, Stella, you asked how long they would have been lying on the seabed, how we found them, how we brought them up; you thought some of them looked like creatures that had been fossilized and so become immortal. “Does looking for them take long?”

“A stone fisher can always tell where to go,” I said. “My father knows whole stone fields, and artificial reefs built a hundred years ago, and he goes searching for those. He carries in his head the sea chart showing the best sites for big blocks.”

“I’d like to see those stone fields some time,” said Stella.

A call came across the water to her; one of the Hirtshafen boys had pushed through the onlookers and
was shouting. Since she didn’t seem to have heard him, he dove off the pier and into the water. A few strokes brought him to the barge. He nimbly climbed the rope ladder. Ignoring the rest of us, he turned straight to Stella and gave her his message: it was something to do with a phone call, she was wanted back at the hotel, she was to be there when the caller tried again. And as if to emphasize the importance of his errand, he added, “I’m to take you back.”

It was Sven, the ever cheerful Sven, a freckled lad and the best swimmer I knew. I wasn’t surprised when he pointed to the hotel and the long wooden bridge, and said maybe Stella would swim back with him. Not just that: he suggested a race. Stella was so pleased that she gave him a hug, but she wasn’t accepting Sven’s challenge. “Some other time,” she said. “We’ll definitely have that race some other time.”

Without asking her, I hauled in our inflatable dinghy, which was on a long line behind the barge, and she was ready for me to take her back to the wooden bridge.

Sven climbed into the inflatable last, sat down beside her, and put an arm around her shoulders in the most natural way. The outboard motor chugged
steadily, and Stella dipped one hand in the water. She didn’t mind when Sven scooped up a handful of water and let it run down her back.

BOOK: Stella
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